Kaiser Wilhelm – warmonger or just a complicated, misunderstood man?

Kaiser Wilhem II prided himself as being Queen Victoria's favourite grandson
Kaiser Wilhem II prided himself as being Queen Victoria's favourite grandson

Just days before the 130th anniversary of Wilhelm becoming emperor of Germany and king of Prussia, historian GORDON LUCY asks if he really was the blood-soaked butcher he was portrayed as

By the end of the Great War Kaiser Wilhelm II was probably the most widely reviled person in Europe, if not the world.

During the war the Allies had portrayed him as a blood-soaked butcher, the enemy of civilisation and the man primarily responsible for the conflict. In 1918 prime minister Lloyd George contended: ‘The Kaiser must be prosecuted. The war was a crime. Who doubts that?’

Yet in the 1930s Lloyd George in his memoirs claimed that ‘nobody willed a war that everybody slithered into’ and observed: ‘The last thing the vainglorious Kaiser wanted was a European war.’ So was Lloyd George right in 1918 or in the 1930s?

The Kaiser was an incredibly complex individual. His parents – the Emperor Friedrich III (who reigned for only 99 days) and the Empress Victoria – were politically liberals but he rejected their politics, preferring his grandfather’s reactionary views. His mother was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and he prided himself on being Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson. She died in his arms. His attitude to the UK oscillated between sentimental friendship and jealous hostility.

By no means stupid, he possessed an excellent memory but had a limited attention span. He preferred talking to listening. As a result he was a poor judge of men and had difficulty understanding the views of others.

Count von Bülow wrote to Prince von Eulenburg, observing: ‘It is a misfortune that our beloved, highly gifted Kaiser so readily exaggerates and his temperament and occasionally his imagination take over’.

As Bülow and Eulenburg were among the most loyal of the Kaiser’s entourage, their remarks are all the more telling. The Kaiser was too fond of words like ‘smash’, ‘destroy’ and ‘annihilate’ for his own (and his country’s) good. His choice of vocabulary and ill-considered statements gave the wrong impression. He seemed to open his mouth only to put his foot or even both feet in it. Much of what he said achieved precisely the direct opposite of what he wished.

He had an unrealistic appreciation of his position in the admittedly complex and hybrid German political system and believed he ruled alone and by Divine Right: ‘I am the sole master of German policy and my country must follow where I go’. This did not correspond to reality.

In 1912 Jules Cambon, the French ambassador to Berlin, made an interesting observation: ‘It is a curious thing to see how this man, so sudden, so reckless and impulsive in words is full of caution and patience in action.’ This observation is borne out by the Kaiser’s conduct during the crisis of July 1914.

During that crisis the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, on receiving contradictory messages from the German government, famously threw up his arms in exasperation and asked: ‘Who rules, Moltke [the chief of the German staff] or Bethmann [the chancellor]?’

The correct answer was Moltke but the formulation of the question was revealing in that it excluded the Kaiser from the frame.

However, the Kaiser was largely responsible for antagonising the British and shaping British thinking prior to the Great War. Even as a youngster, the Kaiser was obsessed by the sea and ships. As an adult he wished to pursue Weltmacht (world power) and secure for Germany ‘a place in the sun’. He eagerly absorbed the US historian A T Mahan’s contention that global power in the future would be determined by fleets of heavy battleships and battle cruisers and herein lay the seeds of Anglo-German naval rivalry.

British politicians viewed naval superiority as a vital component in the UK’s global security and prosperity. They viewed the construction of a large German navy as a direct challenge to the UK’s position in the world (which it was). It was perfectly possible for the UK and Germany to resolve their differences on a wide range of issues (eg the proposed railway from Constantinople to Baghdad) but not naval rivalry which poisoned Anglo-German relations.

In January 1907 Sir Eyre Crowe, a senior official in the (British) Foreign Office, drafted a memorandum arguing that Germany was ‘consciously aiming at the establishment of a German hegemony at first in Europe and eventually in the world’ or that ‘the great German design is in reality no more than the vague, confused and unpractical statesmanship not realising its own drift’. Either way, the result was the same. Germany had to be opposed.

This represented a British volte face because in the 1890s the UK had actively sought to establish good relations with Germany. Rebuffed at every turn by the Germans (and the Kaiser had a major role in this), in the first decade of the 20th century the UK turned to resolving its outstanding differences with France and Russia. This imperceptibly morphed beyond resolving outstanding differences into ‘firm-ish’ commitments to France (but admittedly scarcely at all to Russia).

Like Frederick the Great, the Kaiser had a sensitive and intellectual side which he sought to conceal but he lacked Frederick the Great’s military genius. His love affair with the army went unrequited. During the war he was regarded as ‘the Shadow Kaiser’. Despite being ‘the Supreme Warlord’ in whose name the generals acted, the generals completely disregarded and sidelined their royal master.

He was very reluctant to endorse unrestricted submarine warfare. He thought Germany’s best chance of winning the war or avoiding defeat lay in keeping the United States out of the war. During a visit to Vienna in November 1916 the Kaiser predicted ‘revolution in Moscow and St Petersburg’, ‘complete munitions failure in Russia’, ‘famine in England’ and an exhausted French army. Apart from ‘famine in England’, on this occasion his assessment was more accurate and astute than that of Germany’s military leadership.

Peripheral to events during the Great War – an Austro-Hungarian minister described him as ‘a prisoner of the generals’ – he had been progressively marginalised by the German bureaucracy and military professionals in policy and decision making in the decade or so before the war.